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The world of photography drones opens the skies to photographers looking for new point of views. Thanks to cameras that are professional quality and can shoot in 4K, you can take your photos to new heights.
But most of these drones come with a high price tag and lots of fancy bells and whistles. It's important to think about exactly what you'll be looking for. Are you trying to capture high-speed sports? Or would you rather photograph stunning landscapes from hundreds of feet in the air?
To ensure that you buy the best photography drone for your needs, it helps to have some general knowledge about both cameras and drones. And that’s almost like receiving double the homework, which seems unfair. But photography drones are so much fun to use, in the end you’ll say it was time (and money) well spent.
At BestReviews, we can help ease your homework load. We perform detailed research about each product we cover. We never accept free samples from manufacturers, so our selections and product reviews are free of bias. Our goal is to give readers trustworthy information they can use to make smart purchases.
You may have heard the term unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, associated with drones. These terms can be used interchangeably. We’ve listed some interesting facts about UAVs below.
And sometimes, the crash will destroy the drone. Be ready for this possibility. Flying a drone can be quite challenging for a novice. It takes a lot of practice to get a feel for the controls and to figure out how the drone responds. If you're heading out for a long shoot day, bring extra parts with you in case you break a propellor.
Many drones will automatically return to base when the battery power runs low or when they reach the edge of the range of the remote control.
Military drones operate at high altitudes, can fly extremely fast, and are often large enough to carry weapons. A military drone looks a lot like a miniature airplane, whereas a consumer drone resembles a miniature, futuristic helicopter. There's also a big difference between hobby and photography drones. Hobby drones can cost under $100 dollars and are primarily for fun. Photography drones can cost well over $1000 dollars and are more for professionals.
You can expect to get anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes of battery power per charge for your drone. It’s wise to keep your drone on a recharging station when not in use.
Consumer-level drones and military-level drones vary greatly. Military models are larger and far more powerful than consumer drones.
You’ll have a remote control for directing the drone. Almost all photography drones allow you to mount your smartphone or tablet to the remote control, providing a display screen for first-person piloting and finding your frame.
A drone looks a bit like a multirotor helicopter. This design allows for precise movement while flying. You can position the UAV in just the right location and have it hover in place, taking photos or shooting video.
If you want to fly your drone and shoot photos for recreational purposes within five miles of an airport, you must request permission from the airport first, then wait for a final decision from airport officials.
A digital camera attached to a drone has many of the same capabilities and components you’d find on a standalone digital camera. However, our top picks can shoot up to 20 megapixels - exponentially better than the point and shoot camera your parents might have. Plus they can shoot RAW, a must for any professional. Although you aren’t going to find high-end DSLR camera features on a photography drone, you can get similar quality.
Here are some key facts to understand when looking at cameras on a photography drone.
Video resolution in a photography drone ranges from standard definition to 1080p high-definition to 4K video. Different numbers of frames per second (fps) for recording are available too, such as 24fps or 30fps. Higher resolutions and frame rates produce better-quality video, but they also require a lot of storage space.
By placing the camera mount near the drone’s center of gravity, the drone should hover more smoothly. You’ll then be able to shoot smoother videos with less bouncing in the images.
Aspect ratio is the ratio of a photo’s length to its height. Some common aspect ratios for photos are 3:2, 4:3, and 16:9. A 16:9 aspect ratio matches that of a big-screen HDTV. Look for a camera that offers a 16:9 ratio if you want to display your drone’s collected imagery on the TV.
This means it will only offer one focal length and no zoom feature. However, top drone manufacturers may offer camera upgrades that have zoom. For example, DJI recently release a camera that can zoom up to 16x.
The image sensor is a silicon chip that measures the light traveling through the lens and creates digital pixels to represent the photo. A physically larger image sensor will create better-looking photos than a smaller image sensor.
A photography drone should allow you to see the camera’s real-time positioning on a separate screen or through a smartphone app. This makes it easier to precisely position the drone for photos.
The image sensor’s megapixel measurement is the number of individual dots it uses to create a photo.
The memory card (often, a Micro SD card) is inserted into the camera on the drone. To retrieve imagery, simply remove the memory card and insert it in a computer. Some drones have a USB port for downloading images, too.
This feature comes in handy for shooting photos at angles that the drone itself can’t achieve. Most gimbals can tilt the camera downward a full 90 degrees, for example, allowing you to photograph objects directly below the drone. Some can also tilt 30 or 45 degrees upward. Notably, when tilting upward, you run the risk of having a propeller blade appear in the corner of the image.
When judging the camera in a photography drone, pay attention to the physical size of the image sensor. In most cases, a digital camera with a larger sensor will take higher-quality photos.
At BestReviews, we tested a number of photography drones ourselves. Below, we highlight some of findings.
Even in winds of 5+ mph, the Phantom was 100% steady. This was probably the most impressive thing about it.
The Phantom offers a beginner mode – a great feature for novice flyers.
Although the Phantom has a lot of features, DJI made the controls incredibly easy to use.
The Follow Me Mode, where the drone will follow a moving object, works well as long as it is flying below 20 mph.
We loved the Point of Interest mode, where we could choose a target and a radius and the drone would rotate around it.
Some high-end drones will scan for objects in their path, automatically moving to avoid them.
It’s easy to select among the DJI Mavis Pro’s many fly modes, such as Active Track and Follow Me. However, for these modes to work properly, you need the drone to be at least 100 feet in the air.
The DJI Mavic Pro is an easy-to-land drone; you just press a button and swipe. It does everything else itself.
We achieved a battery life of 21 minutes with our DJI Mavic Pro. Swapping out batteries was easy.
The DJI app does drain a smartphone battery quickly. The DJI Phantom’s remote control actually charges the connected smartphone, but this is not the case for the Mavic.
We were impressed by the quality of the Mavic’s photos and videos.
Familiarize yourself with all local drone-flying rules and regulations before flying your drone. Local rules are sometimes stricter than the FAA’s rules.
When the Holy Stone HS170’s battery started to die, it kept losing the connection, which forced it to land wherever it happened to be. This could have been hugely problematic if we were flying it over water or another risky area.
We were able to fly the Holy Stone up to about 50 feet in the air, which should be plenty for anyone using this drone.
We tried to use the Return Home feature with little success outside. However, it worked well inside.
The Holy Stone’s camera quality is decidedly not good enough for professional shots.
All in all, the Holy Stone HS170 is a good toy drone or starter drone for its price. But we’d suggest sticking to your backyard with it.
Q. Do I need to register with the FAA to use my photography drone?
A. The rules regarding drone flying depend on a few things. If your drone weighs more than 55 pounds, or if you’re going to fly the drone for commercial purposes, you need to register it and carry a drone operator license.
As a recreational or hobbyist pilot, you must register a drone if it weighs between 0.55 and 55 pounds, but you don’t need a license. Regulations sometimes change, however, so check the FAA website for more information.
Q. What are the requirements for selling my photographs and videos shot via drone?
A. The FAA’s rules regarding using a drone for commercial purposes when shooting photos changed in late 2016. You will need to have a drone operator’s license if you plan to sell your images or use them for your business. Obtaining a drone operator’s license requires passing a written test and paying a licensing fee. Should you be found guilty of using your drone for commercial purposes without a license, you could incur a fine of more than $1,000.
If you plan to use your drone shots in this way, you must also register the drone.
Q. How does an octocopter differ from a drone?
A. Actually, it doesn’t really differ. Think of the word drone as the overall term for aerial vehicles people can fly via remote control. The term encompasses all types of remote flying machines that can be precisely controlled.
Fitting under the term drone, you’ll see terms like quadcopter, hexacopter, and octocopter. The prefix refers to the number of rotors on the device, where quad equals four and octo equals eight.
Q. I want a photography drone, but do I have to buy a drone with a camera already attached?
A. No. Some drones contain a camera bracket rather than an actual camera. This means you can attach your own camera to the drone and use it. This may save you a little bit of money if you already own a camera you want to use when flying. That said, not all photography drones come with the ability to attach a separate camera.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.